Chatting with Jabba the Hutt
Chatting with Jabba the Hutt

You've enjoyed his performance in Return of the Jedi and you've seen his work in one of the most important characters of the movie. Meet Toby Philpott, one of the men who brought the malicious Jabba the Hutt to life.

He's an experienced circus performer (engaged among other things in the NoFit State Circus) turned puppeteer in movies like "The Dark Crystal" by p(m)uppet master Jim Henson and "Labyrinth" with David Bowie, Frank Oz (Yoda) and Warwick Davis (Wicket), "The Little Shop of Horrors" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit".

Jabba hand Inside the mighty Jabba there were 3 people working as a team:
David Barclay, who did the right hand and mouth. (He spoke in English and synched Jabba's mouth after it, not knowing that they'd later dub over it with another actor's voice, so that all his hard-work would be lost.)
Mike Edmonds (also a time bandit and Ewok) maneuvered the tail.
And finally Toby Philpott, who got to do all the fun stuff, including left hand, head, body and tongue. He smoked the hookah, ate a "frog", grabbed people etc.

"Lost in a gypsy life" Toby says he's paid very little attention to the on-going evolution of Star Wars, but was kind enough to indulge me in answering a couple of questions off the top of my head.

------

BH:
You describe yourself as "a street juggler that got lucky". How did you get in touch with Jim Henson and how did your work with him lead to your part as Jabba?

TP:
I was a street juggler (but I also did schools, hospitals, television, etc. - juggling was not a big craze then, and I got steady work). In the process of learning everything I could, I also trained in acrobatics and slapstick (stage fighting, etc.). When Jim Henson wanted people to be inside 'a new kind of creature' for 'The Dark Crystal', he advertised for Dancers/Mimes/Acrobats (as no-one knew what kind of physique and stamina would be necessary.) In short, I answered the ad, passed a long audition, and worked on the movie in all sorts of jobs. Jedi was to be made at the same studio, and some of the puppet builders worked on both movies, so I was chosen as a partner to David Barclay (who, at that point, was a builder, and not a member of the performer's union.)

Jabba the Sub BH:
How was it inside Jabba's belly, (Hot, cramped, uncomfortable? All of the above?) and for how long periods of time were you and the others in there?

TP:
Yes, it was all the things you say. We used to get inside (like a two-man submarine) first thing in the morning, and be there most of the day, except for tea breaks, as Jabba was considered as an actor, not a bag of tricks, so the director talked to us as Jabba, not as Toby, David, Mike, etc. To avoid confusion (and to keep practicing) we answered in character, so although we could all hear, only David could speak. I was the silent half of the brain.

BH:
How was the atmosphere on the set and did you socialize at all with the rest of the crew and cast?

TP:
It was a very pressurized set. Often, with so many people around, we would be the only ones that nobody recognized. 'What do you do?' visitors and extras would ask. I did socialize with the other puppeteers (and there were lots, with the band and background characters - I knew them from both Dark Crystal and from the alternative theater circuit in London.) We didn't meet  the stars much, except for quick briefings, or when particular problems let us come out onto the set to talk.

BH:
What was your impression of Richard Marquand, George Lucas and the lead actors?

TP:
Richard Marquand was OK. He accepted our request to talk to Jabba and not as if he was a set of parts - a trick we learned from Jim Henson, when all direction was directed at the character, not at the puppeteer inside (or under the floor, or up above with strings, etc.)
George Lucas was so quiet that we never really knew him (everyone says this) - he's obviously brilliant, and he gave us the chance to do the creature live (after all Henson's creature shop had given him Yoda.)
Harrison Ford was as rueful, and funny as he appears, Carrie Fisher was well out of it, or very petulant to be stuck in a long contract, mischievous on set. (She's fantastic in The Blues Brothers, however, and writes wonderful books.)
Mark Hamill? Well, he was a bit insecure, (I met him a couple of times in the costume and make-up department) and not nearly as boyish without the make-up.

BH:
Were you surprised at the large amount of Star Wars websites on the Net when you first got on-line and what have you thought of them so far?

TP:
I was fairly surprised, but I had an idea it was all going on. People used to say that I could sell my old T-Shirts and stuff at conventions, but I didn't want to. I gave away, or lost bits and pieces, over the years. I have only recently got back into an electronic household, so I have not looked at the videos for some time (I never owned any). It's very amusing to have put a few bricks into this great big building.

BH:
How did you like the new computer animated Jabba in the Special Edition version of A New Hope?

TP:
I have only seen clips on tv. I don't like it a lot, but that's because he was going to be animated at the time we worked on it, and the real life, improvising creature on the set seemed like a much more flexible way of working, easier for the actors to relate to, easier to change for the director. Still, we have been put out of a job by computers. Hmmm.

BH:
What's your take as a puppeteer on the increased use of computer animations rather than animatronics and real performers in new Hollywood movies?

TP:
As I started to say above, I am sad, because my dad was a puppeteer/teacher/author, and he taught  me the value of live performance. Still, I am equally interested in the future possibilities as the two methods combine, so I think they will happily run alongside each other for a while yet.

BH:
Have you seen the Prequel trailer and if so what are your expectations for the new movies, if any?

TP:
I have not seen much of it, so I don't really have an opinion. Back then, we were told that we were working on the middle three of a nine-part story, but we didn't really believe it - Lucas is awfully secretive. It was obvious that he would need three different lead actors for the early parts we are now about to see. Will he get the originals back to play themselves old?

(Blue Harvest note: The actors themselves (Ford and Fisher) have said they would definitely not participate in the Prequels or any movies about the continuing story about Han, Leia and Luke. Mark has said however that he might appear, with heavy make-up in some kind of small cameo-role just for fun.)

BH:
What's your life like now? You mentioned you worked for the NoFit State Circus and now the Central Library. What do you do there?

TP:
The circus (a non-animal comedy circus/theatre) grew out of some juggling classes I taught in Cardiff in 1983/4. They are an anarchic co-operative who work in the arts, and I have come and gone, working in different capacities, for a long time. They're my friends and family.   I work in the library because it seemed a logical move at my age. I went from performing to teaching, then researching and writing. I will never be a computer whizz, but I know I have to be an information worker to stay employed in the next century - Plus, it is a steady job (after 30 years of insecure self-employment).

BH:
Last but not least I have a rather silly question; Carrie Fisher mentioned in an interview for TNT that the slave-girl costume she wore in Jabba's throneroom didn't quite fit her like it should have. Apparently Jeremy Bullock (Boba Fett) and some others held a peep contest to see who could see the most of her as it were.
Did you participate?

TP:
No, I didn't. We didn't see the camera eye view on our tv monitors inside Jabba, just a general view of the stage, so we didn't see many close-ups. I did better however, I stuck my tongue in her ear!

The tongue Sorry, I should explain. When Jabba is behind the curtain (as Carrie Fisher gets Harrison Ford out of his carbonized state), and then grabs Leia, the director whispered to me (through the radio headphone) to try to lick the side of her face in the next take, to get a real reaction, (the tongue was covered in KY Jelly.)
I didn't want to, without telling her, (because the tongue was hard to control or direct.) They talked me into it.
'And....ACTION.'
David gloats, we chuckle, and then I went for it. There was a commotion, and
'CUT!'
Then a lot of fussing around. Then another take.
Only at tea break did I find out what happened. (I wasn't looking forward to meeting Carrie Fisher with her minders - I imagined her arriving going 'which asshole puppeteer works the tongue?')
People said 'Why did you do that?' They were stunned that anyone could be so brave or stupid in a high budget production, where minutes cost hundreds of pounds. 'I had to,' I said, ' the director told me to.'
I told them that I couldn't really see what happened, because of the stupid arrangement of having to operate Jabba with only a general view of the set - Jim Henson let the puppeteers see exactly what the camera saw, so you would know how hard to work - how close-up it was etc.
'What happened? I said, 'I heard her gasp.'
'You stuck Jabba's tongue right in her ear.'

[Now there's an out-take I'd like to see!]

------

Big thanks to Toby for taking the time to talk to me and share with us what it was like on the set! It was a rare pleasure.
Cheers mate! :-)

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Did you know...
that Lucas ends the dialogue in the Phantom Menace like a Shakespearean play, with a rhyming couplet: "Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice." "But which was destroyed? The master or the apprentice?"

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